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How to do a Word Study

A critical step in the exegetical process is the study of selected words determined to be especially significant for the understanding of a text. Contrary to widespread opinion, one need not have a mastery of Greek in order to ascertain the meaning of the important words in a text of Scripture. This lesson is designed to assist the student who has only a rudimentary knowledge of Greek (i.e., someone who is acquainted with the Greek alphabet) and is therefore largely restricted to the various English translations (or, at best, to the use of an interlinear).

1.         Identify and isolate the significant words in your passage that call for special study.

a.         Read several different English translations (e.g., ESV, NASB, NIV, RSV, NKJV) and observe those words that appear to be theologically significant.

[For example, in Col. 1:15-20, numerous words in the NASB translation call for varying degrees of investigation: "image" (v. 15), "first-born" (v. 15), "thrones" (v. 16), "dominions" (v. 16), "rulers" (v. 16), "authorities" (v. 16), "hold together" (v. 17), "head" (v. 18), "church" (v. 18), "beginning" (v. 18), "fullness" (v. 19), "reconcile" (v. 20), "peace" (v. 20), and 'blood" (v. 20).]

b.         Take note of any words that appear to affect the meaning of the passage, even if they do not bear great theological significance.

[For example, "vessel" in 1 Thess. 4:4; "virgin" in 1 Cor. 7:25ff.]

c.         Take note of any words that are repeated throughout a passage or paragraph, or words that, even if used only once, seem to be given emphasis or preeminence in the argument.

[For example, "edification" in 1 Cor. 14; "power" in Eph. 1:19; "brother" in 1 John 5:16; "joy" in James 1:2-4; "wisdom" in 1 Cor. 1:17-2:16 (15x).]

2.         With the help of an interlinear NT, identify the Greek form of your word. Look up the form in an analytical lexicon (such as The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament by William Mounce) to find what is called the word's lexical or dictionary form (this is the form of the word by which it is listed in a Greek lexicon such as BAG, Thayer, or Abbott-Smith).

[For example, let's suppose you want to know who "the rulers" are in 1 Cor. 2:6,8, who Paul says were responsible for crucifying the Lord Jesus. The interlinear shows that "rulers" is the translation of archonton. In Mounce, p. 101, we see that this is the genitive, masculine plural of the noun archon. The latter is the lexical form of this word.]

3.         Look up the lexical form of your word in the standard Greek lexicon of Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich. For a step-by-step guide to the use of BAG, see the example in Gordon Fee's book New Testament Exegesis (Westminster Press, 1993), pp. 104-113.

a.         The information in BAG will not provide you with much in the way of etymological insights into your word. But that is no great loss, insofar as etymology is a tenuous foundation upon which to build meaning. See the discussion below.

b.         BAG does provide extensive information on the history of your word. In studying its history, "you are trying to establish the use of a word prior to its appearance in your NT document. How was the word used in the past? How far back does it go in the history of the language? Does it change meanings as it moves from the classical to the Hellenistic period? Did it have different meanings in Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts?" (Fee, p. 102).

c.         A thorough study of the history of a word entails four steps:

1)         Classical usage (900-300 b.c.) - the standard lexicon for this period is by H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon: A New Edition Revised and Augmented Throughout with Supplement, (Oxford University Press).

2)         LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT) - here one will employ A Concordance to the Septuagint by Edwin Hatch and Henry Redpath (Baker, 1983; 2 vols.).

3)         Non-biblical sources contemporary with the NT (300 b.c. - 100 a.d.) - the standard tool for this period is The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament by James Moulton and George Milligan (Eerdmans, 1974).

4)         The NT itself

d.         The single most important factor in determining meaning is usage in the NT itself, for which a concordance is the absolutely essential tool.

Returning to our previous example of archon, an examination of The New Englishman's Greek Concordance and Lexicon, p. 96, reveals that the word is used 37x in the NT, but only 4x in Paul's writings. This concordance also indicates that the lexical entry for archon in BAG is found on p. 113.

Overview of principles for the study of word usage in the NT:

Consider the sentence, Jim is green. It could mean: 1) Jim is green in color. Perhaps he is covered with paint. 2) Jim is jealous. Perhaps he has been bitten by the green-eyed monster. 3) Jim is a new-comer, a rookie. Or 4) Jim is sick. He looks a little green around the gills. How does one determine the meaning of such a statement? Several factors must be considered:

1.         The meaning of a word may often be determined by noting the author's own definition (cf. Heb. 5:14; 2 Tim. 3:17).

2.         Occasionally a word is defined by a qualifying phrase or editorial comment (cf. John 2:19; 7:37-39; Eph. 1:7).

3.         The grammatical construction is often helpful. In Mt. 5:13 we know that moraino means "to be tasteless" and not "to become foolish" (as in Rom. 1:22), because of its grammatical relation to "salt" in the text.

4.         Examine the contextual antitheses and contrasts (cf. Rom. 8:5-8 where "flesh" does not mean the physical body because of the way it is contrasted with "Spirit").

5.         Observe the structural parallelism (esp. in Hebrew poetry).

a.         synonymous (Prov. 19:5-6; Ps. 95:6)

b.         antithetic (Prov. 13:1; 10:4; 14:34)

c.         synthetic (Ps. 92:9; 27:1)

d.         chiastic

6.         Textual parallelism is crucial

a.         verbal parallels

1) immediate context

2) remote context in the same book

3) remote context in a different book by the same author

4) remote context in other NT writings by a different author, but of the same genre

5) remote context in other NT writings by a different author, but of a different genre

6) remote context in a different testament (OT)

b.         thematic parallels

Cf. Lk. 14:26 / Mt. 10:37

7.         Synonyms

8.         The nature of the subject matter in the context may help define a word (cf. 2 Cor. 5 where "house" = "body").

9.         If the same word is used in the same context more than once, one assumes it means the same in both cases unless context or the analogy of faith dictate otherwise (cf. Mt. 8:22).

10.       Remember that a word does not always have the same meaning everywhere it occurs in Scripture, even within the same book.

For example, consider the word sarx, often translated "flesh." In Romans it means human nature (1:3), the physical body (2:28), a human being or man (3:20), the old, unregenerate self (7:5), natural birth (9:8), the sinful nature (8:13; 13:14).

Furthermore, we read in Mt. 24:12 that "no flesh will be saved" (i.e., no person); Heb. 5:7 speaks of "the days of his flesh" (his earthly life); and Jude 7 refers to angels who went after "strange flesh" (i.e., engaged in sexual immorality).

Two additional senses of the term are found in 1 Cor. 1:26, where it means human standards, and in 2 Cor. 5:16, where it means from a worldly point of view.

The point is this: "One can never say what sarx means, but only what it means in this or that context" (Louw, pp. 39-40).

One problem is the presence in the NT of numerous hapax legomena, i.e., words that appear only once.

Numerous fallacies and pitfalls await the student of Scripture in the study of words. Several of the more important errors in word-study are noted below.

[N.B. The best treatment of the many fallacies that are committed in the process of doing a word study is provided by D. A. Carson in his book Exegetical Fallacies (Baker, 1984).]

1.         The root fallacy

This fallacy is based on the assumption that a word derives it meaning from the shape or components of which it is made. I.e., the mistake is in thinking that meaning is determined by etymology. [The exegetical dictionary by Kittel is often guilty of this mistake.]


a.         Agapao and Phileo - observe that agapao and its related noun agape are used in 2 Sam. 13:15 (LXX) to describe Amnon's incestuous rape of his half-sister Tamar. See also 2 Tim. 4:10 (agapao); and compare John 3:35 (agapao) with John 5:20 (phileo). See also the famous exchange between Jesus and Peter in John 21:15-17. None of this is to suggest that there isn't a special quality to God's love for us. Certainly his love is sacrificial and divine, etc. But this is not because of some intrinsic meaning in the verb agapao or the noun agape.

b.         Monogenes - thought by many to be derived from monos (only) and gennao (to beget), hence "only-begotten". But cf. Heb. 11:17. Hence, the best translation is probably something like unique, special, well-beloved son.

c.         Apostolos - The fact that this word is related to the verb apostello (to send), is often used to argue that the root meaning of "apostle" is "one who is sent." But as Carson points out, the "NT use of the noun [apostolos] does not center on the meaning "the one sent" but on messenger. Now a messenger is usually sent; but the word "messenger" also calls to mind the message the person carries, and suggests he represents the one who sent him. In other words, actual usage in the NT suggests that apostolos commonly bears the meaning of "a special representative" or "a special messenger" rather than someone sent out" (Exegetical Fallacies, p. 29).

d.         Ekklesia - one often hears that since this word is built from the preposition ek (from) and the verb kaleo (to call) it means "the called out ones" or some such idea. But there is no indication that this was its emphasis in NT times. It simply means "the congregation."

2.         Semantic anachronism

This is when a late use of a word is read back into earlier literature. An example is the Greek word dunamis, from which we derive our English term "dynamite." Semantic anachronism would be interpreting the meaning of the first century Greek word by an appeal to the meaning of the twentieth century English word.

Cf. also 2 Cor. 9:7.

3.         Semantic obsolescence

This is when the interpreter assigns to a word a meaning that it had in earlier times but that is no longer within the semantic range of the term. [The semantic range of a word is a list of the ways the word was used in the period when the author was writing.]

4.         Appeal to unknown or unlikely meanings

Cf. kephale (head) in 1 Cor. 11:2-16.

5.         False assumptions about technical meaning

Here the interpreter falsely assumes that a word always or nearly always has a certain technical or theologically immutable meaning.

Some examples include: 1) "sanctification" (1 Thess. 4:3 and 1 Cor. 1:2); 2) "revelation" (Phil. 3:15); 3) "call" or "calling" (in Paul and in the synoptic gospels); 4) "justify" (in Paul and in James); 5) "mystery" (in Col. 1:26-27 and in Eph. 3:4-6); and 6) "foundation" (in 1 Cor. 3:11 and in Eph. 2:20).

6.         Unwarranted semantic disjunctions

This refers to the tendency to "offer the reader either/or alternatives and then force a decision. In other words, they demand semantic disjunction, when complementarity might be a possibility" (Carson, pp. 55-6).

7.         Illegitimate totality transfer

This fallacy is found in the idea that the meaning of a word in a specific context is much broader than the context itself allows and may entail the entire range of a word's meaning. Or, this fallacy "assumes that a word carries all of its senses in any one passage" (Darrell Bock, in Introducing NT Interpretation, p. 110).

The Amplified Bible is often guilty of this fallacy in its attempt to provide us with an expansive paraphrase of the text.

4.         The final step is to study the articles on your word found in the various exegetical dictionaries, the three most helpful of which are: 1) The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology; 2) Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament; and 3) Kittel.